Thursday, July 18, 2013

Back to school...

I know.  It's July.  And not even the end of July.  But regardless, the "Back to School" section is set up in Target and the clothing commercials are starting to infiltrate my nightly television shows we go.  This fall will be the start of my ninth year in the classroom and I feel like I've gained some sort of wisdom throughout my career.  My personal philosophy towards teaching and educating kids can come down to a few things - hold them to high expectations and teach them how to climb, while still treating them with kindness, dignity and above all, providing ample amounts of grace.  Children are in school for a reason - they are in the process of learning everything they need to know in order to become a fully functioning adult.  Part of these lessons include academics, homework and testing while a whole host of important stuff is intangible - how to treat others, setting personal goals, time-management and overcoming obstacles.  My job is to teach all of this, some through planned lessons and others through how I live my life.  Here are just a few insights into the world of education and children that I think can be helpful or useful to parents.

1. It's all about the JOURNEY and not the destination.

Education in the United States is changing.  Gone are the days when students are simply asked to read, memorize and regurgitate information because we do not need a nation of citizens that can JUST quote the Preamble to the Constitution.  No, instead we need citizens who can break down the words and phrases used, understand their context in history and then apply that meaning to the current state of our nation.  This is where education is moving because our students have access to a limitless amount of information at the click of a mouse or the tap of an app.  So instead of teaching them facts and figures we must teach them to interpret those facts and figures in a way that can benefit humanity in the future.

So how is this going to affect your student?  First of all, assignments and grading are going to change.  Your child's teacher is not going to just be assessing their knowledge, but how they came to gain that knowledge and how they plan on applying it.  We must teach our children how to be faced with a problem or dilemma and then provide them with tools and a path to solve it.  And more than that, students (and their parents!) must understand that learning is a process and just like riding a bike there will be times when a child falls down.  THIS IS OKAY.  The more important thing than just learning how to balance and pedal is having the fortitude to get back on the bike, fix any mistakes and figure out how to get going in the right direction.  A failed assignment or constructive criticism from a teacher is not the end of the world, but instead an opportunity to build determination and endurability by getting back on the proverbial bike.

Secondly, when assessing students' knowledge, any teacher worth their salt understands the power of a varied curriculum.  In every school and in every classroom there are students that just want to do the review, take the test and then move on to the next subject.  And there is nothing wrong with that type of learner.  But then there are also those students who crave the ability to create, design and present.  Assessments must reach both types of learners and therefore, both tests and projects are integral in the modern-day classroom.  Teachers also understand the importance of providing students the opportunity to develop character traits such as determination, attention to detail, focus and conflict resolution.  Large scale projects first aim to demonstrate a students knowledge on a subject but the offshoot is that the student also gains important life skills by working through the process of creating the final product.  So please, please, please...let your students do they work they are assigned because if you do it for them you are robbing them of the opportunity to grow not just academically but emotionally and cognitively.  Some of the moments I love most in the classroom is when I hand back the grades from a large project and there are those students that are on pins and needles, hoping that all their hard work paid off....and when I give them back that A+ a grin spreads across their face, an enthusiastic "yes!" escapes their lips and sometimes there are even fist bumps and squeals.  In that moment I know that my student didn't just demonstrate their learning but they have achieved the purest form of self-esteem - pride and satisfaction with a job well done.  Allow your student to work through this new (and sometimes confusing) process of learning because no matter the size of the step, it is there for a reason - to hopefully develop your child into a critically-thinking lifelong learner who will go on to have a positive effect on the world.

2. Ask the right questions.

We all know the 'W' questions that come with every invitation - the who, the what, the when and the where.  These are simple, basic and easy to Google questions that will provide a baseline of knowledge for you child.  But in this new world of education, answering those questions is not enough anymore.  Getting back to the earlier example of the Preamble, a student must know WHO wrote it, WHAT does it say and WHEN and WHERE was it written before they can dig deeper and use this knowledge in a more meaningful way.

But what does "meaningful" even mean? To keep it short, it's the HOW and the WHY.  How do we know that this document is important and why do we need to understand what it says and the value of those words?  So when your student is coming home with homework, be prepared to help them understand the information by guiding them through it.  Guiding does not mean telling but instead it's providing the right materials while asking the right questions.

Of course you should also be prepared for questions to be thrown right back at you....and don't be afraid of saying very honestly, "I don't know."  I think it is important for kids to understand that adults don't know long as that "I don't know" is followed up with a "let's look it up" or a "let me think about it for a bit."  Don't just tell your child that education and learning are important, SHOW them that you value discovery, questioning and critical thinking.

3. Utilize your resources.

It's inevitable that at some point in the school year your child will come home with an assignment (most likely math) and you both will have absolutely no idea what to do.  First of all, don't blame your child for not paying attention and don't blame the teacher for not teaching.  In most middle and high schools, classes are only 45 minutes long and after checking homework and explaining a concept, there might not be too much time left over for questions and individual work time.  Also, your child is sitting through eight hours of instruction during the day - that's about eight different teachers setting expectations, assigning homework and covering different concepts.  For the average middle school student that is VERY difficult to keep track of and often what they understood during 3rd period leaves them in a complete state of confusion at 5:00 while sitting at the dinner table working on homework.

So what do you do?  In an effort to save everyone's sanity, try not to argue, accuse or get frustrated but instead use the tools you have...and these days there are far more resources to find answers than just the back of the textbook.  First stop for many middle and high schoolers should be to the Kahn Academy where you will find clear, concise videos explaining any number of topics ranging from the Boston Tea Party to the correct use of transitory verbs or how to simplify a fraction.  For the younger students sign up for a free account on BlogLovin and use the search engine to find grade or subject specific teacher blogs that might provide extra information or even links to solid educational websites.  Just be thorough in your investigation of internet resources - if your gut tells you it's not a legit site that's going to help your student learn, then find one that gives you the warm fuzzies.

Using resources like these doesn't mean that the teacher isn't instructing properly or that your student isn't paying just means that perhaps something is getting lost in translation and your child might need a different explanation than what he or she is getting in the classroom.  I teach math the way it makes sense to me and I encourage my students to try it my way first, but if they continue to struggle and the examples or explanations I am giving them aren't making sense, why should that student sit there and feel stupid?  The more important thing is that the understand the concept and it really doesn't matter where the instruction is coming from, whether it's the teacher, an older sibling or even a video on the internet.

4. Keep it all in perspective.

Children, especially teenagers, are very emotional creatures with an extremely limited view of the world.  They are inherently selfish and often struggle to see the big picture or put themselves in the shoes of others.  Bear this in mind when listening to the recaps of your child's day and remember that you are hearing things through the lens of a teenager without a fully developed brain.  This does not render their feelings unimportant but instead allows you to take a step back, gain focus and then get a fuller glimpse into their day.  Like my mother always said, there are three sides to a story - yours, theirs and the truth.  So when your child complains about that mean, nasty teacher that didn't let them turn in their homework, or that girl who was so rude to them at lunch for no apparent reason...try to ask questions that will give you a wider lens of what really happened.  "What were the teacher's expectations?  How did you fulfill them?  Is there any way you can resolve this issue?"  or  "Is this girl a friend of yours?  What was your previous interaction like?  How do you think you'll handle things from here?"  No accusations, no picking sides....and I've found that the more open-ended and casual questions you give to a teenager, the more information you will receive in return.  (And another hint - ask the hard hitting questions while driving in the car, washing the dishes or taking the dog for a walk because teens do better communicating the tough stuff when they aren't sitting face-to-face interrogation style.)  Then with a better picture of what is going on, decide whether or not this situation needs adult intervention from the teacher or an administrator.

Which leads me to this...

5. Please...use honey and not vinegar.

Keep in mind when contacting your student's teacher whether by email or telephone that there is a real live person on the other end.  One that most likely works tirelessly to try and provide your student with the best education possible on a very menial budget and with few benefits.  If you have a question about your child's experience in the classroom or a grade that has been earned (because yes, they are earned and not given) please remember to use your honey voice and not vinegar.  Approach your email as a simple inquiry - you're just trying to get a full picture of what is going on, as opposed to a personal attack on the teacher's character and competency in the classroom.  It doesn't matter how long a teacher has been in the classroom, when an email from a parent pops up in the inbox, her stomach starts doing flip-flops...yikes, what have I done now?  Wearing your heart on your sleeve and infusing every ounce of your being into creating a safe and inspiring learning environment for children is at the core of every teacher.  We teach because we love learning and we love making an impact on children.  We care about our communities and the future of our world so much that we are training the next generation of people that will inherit it.  For the most part, the teacher is not the enemy - the teacher and parent share the same goal, which is for the child to be successful both in and out of the classroom.

And you know what's even better than you writing an email?  Empowering your child to approach the teacher.  Most teachers I know are available in their classrooms both before and after school and are more than happy to sit down with a child to discuss a project, test or daily grade.  For a lot of children the idea of approaching their teacher with a concern is absolutely terrifying but so is interviewing for a job or making a presentation to your superiors.  To be honest, there are still times I get nervous when I have to meet with my principal!  But the fact remains, children have the ability to surprise you with their maturity, strength and ingenuity when you give them the opportunity to stand on their own.  Give your children the tools to be successful and then allow them to branch out and speak up for themselves.

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